Bülent Ecevit

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bülent Ecevit

Turkish politician and writer Bülent Ecevit (born 1925) was alternately prime minister and leader of the opposition in the 1970s; since 1989 he has chaired the Democratic Left Party.

Bülent Ecevit was born in Istanbul on May 28, 1925 into a learned and cultured family. His father was a physician and member of Turkey's new parliament as a representative of the Republican People's Party (RPP); Ecevit's mother was a teacher and painter. He graduated from the American Robert College in Istanbul in 1944 and later studied at the universities of Ankara, London, and Harvard. Following an interlude as an official with the Press Attaché's office at the Turkish Embassy in London, he returned to Turkey in 1950 and joined Ulus, the daily of the RPP, as a literary critic. He would later hold positions of foreign news editor, managing editor, political director, and chief columnist at the paper over the next several years.

Entered Politics

The RPP, the party of both his father and the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had governed Turkey since 1923, but in 1950 lost its parliamentary majority for ten years to the Democrat Party. Ecevit was part of a new wave of intellectuals brought in to revitalize the party, partly through his recognition by Ismet Inönü, the RPP's elder statesman. In 1957 Ecevit was elected to Turkey's National Assembly and set about modernizing RPP by establishing its research center. The following year he held the position as representative for Turkey at the Council of Europe. After a military intervention on May 27, 1960, Ecevit was appointed to the constituent assembly which was to draft a new constitution. In 1961 he was elected to the National Assembly. Later that year, when RPP chair Inönü formed a new government, Ecevit was appointed minister of labor.

Ecevit initiated significant labor legislation during his tenure over the next few years, mainly through recognizing the importance of establishing strong ties with the country's newly emergent urban working class and courting their trade unions. Ecevit shepherded Turkey's first right-to-strike act into law, a significant labor achievement. Convinced that his party should be oriented toward socio-economic reform, he strove to steer its 1965 National Assembly election platform in a "left-of-center" direction, despite the protests of conservative circles. Inönü's support enabled Ecevit to carry through this change of orientation; however, the RPP lost the elections, perhaps because of its new stance, to another mass party, the Justice Party, which formed the new government. Nevertheless, Ecevit was appointed RPP secretary-general in 1966.

Decline, Then Comeback, of RPP

Although the RPP fared even worse in 1969 elections than in 1965, Ecevit gradually consolidated his position as the acknowledged leader of the party group advocating socio-economic reform. Soon after a second military intervention of March 12, 1971, a power struggle between Ecevit and the aging Inönü erupted. In 1972 Ecevit became the RPP's chairman, leading the party to victory in the October 1973 National Assembly elections and demonstrating his charisma in speeches before huge crowds, with whom he created successful rapport through his populist flair. However, although the RPP received a plurality, its share came to only 33.3 percent of the overall vote, which meant it had to form a coalition.

Crisis on Cyprus

On January 25, 1974, Ecevit became prime minister of a coalition government in which the RPP was the senior partner and the National Salvation Party, a newly formed political grouping with an Islamic orientation, the junior one. The government lasted only until September 11, 1974, primarily because of political rivalry and personal friction between the partners. The unavoidable give-and-take meant that few significant reforms could be achieved; the most notable success was the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in July 1974, which Ecevit had authorized. Greek forces had invaded the island and ousted its president; fearing annexation of Cyprus into Greece, Turkey sent troops to protect its citizens there. The situation threatened to launch a war between Greece and Turkey—an unprecedented danger, as both were members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—but instead it dissolved into a political stalemate with both countries sharing a divided island. Negotiations to resolve the dispute were still ongoing in 1997.

Though a busy politician, Ecevit also pursued his literary interests. He was the translator of part of the sacred Indian text the Bhagwad Gita into Turkish, and wrote poetry and numerous treatises on his country's history and politics. His list of published works include Şiirleri (1976), Ortanin solu (title means Left of the Middle'; 1966), and Atatürk ve devrimcilik (title means Ataturk and the Revolution'; 1970).

Beginning in November 1974 the RPP returned to parliamentary opposition, and the Justice Party formed a coalition government with smaller parties in March 1975. In the June 1977 National Assembly elections the RPP came in first again with even stronger support than in 1973, and much of its success was attributed to Ecevit's charismatic leadership. Modern Turks had come to seen the party of Ataturk as elitist and out of touch, and Ecevit helped attract fresh support by taking its platform in a new direction and somewhat distancing the party from its past. Significantly, he courted voters from among the urban working class and poor rural farmers.

New Responsibility

After a short-lived coalition government headed by the Justice Party, Ecevit succeeded in forming a government in December 1977, this time supported by two small splinter parties and several independents. This precarious majority enabled Ecevit to serve as prime minister until October 1979. The Justice Party then set up a coalition government which, in turn, was dismissed by the third military intervention on September 12, 1980. Parliament was dissolved and political parties were closed down soon afterwards, their leaders banned from political activity for ten years. When Ecevit continued to give political interviews, he was briefly jailed. Upon Turkey's return to civilian government in late 1983 neither the RPP nor Ecevit himself participated in politics, although Ecevit's wife, Rahšan, was increasingly active politically in the new Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which he had helped organize.

In 1986 Ecevit was charged with violating the ban on political activity; he was acquitted, and the following year a national referendum voted in favor of lifting that ban altogether. He then became chair of the party. The year 1987 also brought elections, but the DSP failed to gain any seats in parliament. Ecevit resigned as a result, but was reelected its chair in 1988.

An intellectual who has also translated the works of T. S. Eliot and penned poetry himself, Ecevit showed himself to be both an ideologue and a man of action. His brief tenures in office hardly sufficed for effectively attending to Turkey's serious socio-economic problems. Ecevit, however, seemed to maintain his popular appeal throughout, advocating a brighter future based on rapid economic development and a new social order—a libertarian democracy focusing on improving living standards, yet consistent with Turkey's national interests. Ecevit considered himself a social democrat, while his political opponents saw him as a radical leftist; he aroused both unbounded admiration and intense criticism.

In the early 1990s Ecevit remained as chair of the DSP. The party won eleven percent of the vote in 1991 elections, and Ecevit returned to a seat in the National Assembly. The continued animosity between he and Inönü prevented any alliance between their respective parties, however. Ecevit also continued to pursue his scholarly interests, and this period would see the publication of several more books. These included The Changing World and Gurhey (1990), Mithat Pasha and the Historical Process of the Turkish Economy (1990), The Impact on Turkish Politics of the Social Culture, and Anti-Memoirs (1991).

Further Reading

Ecevit is listed in Marquis' Who's Who in the World. For his views, see Ecevit's "Labor in Turkey as a New Social and Political Force," in K. H. Karpat and Contributors, Social Change and Politics in Turkey (1973) and Ecevit's "Left of Center: What Is It?" in K. H. Karpat (editor), Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East (2nd edition, 1982).

Several books discuss recent Turkish politics and Ecevit's role therein: Geoffrey Lewis, Modern Turkey (1974); Jacob M. Landau, Radical Politics in Modern Turkey (1974); ErgunÖzbudun, Social Change and Political Participation in Turkey (1976); Feroz Ahmad, The Turkish Experiment in Democracy, 1950-1975 (1977); C. H. Dodd, Democracy and Development in Turkey (1979); Walter F. Weiker, The Modernization of Turkey (1981); and Frank Tachau, Turkey: The Politics of Authority, Democracy and Development (1984). □